Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Nation’s Graduation Rate Nears a Milestone

By Christopher B. Swanson & Sterling C. Lloyd — May 31, 2013 4 min read

At the beginning of the last decade, before concerns about the nation’s graduation rate ascended to prominence on the policy agenda, only about two-thirds of U.S. public school students were finishing high school with a regular diploma. A new analysis from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center finds that the graduation rate for America’s public schools stands just shy of 75 percent for the class of 2010, the most recent year for which data are available.

The graduation rate, which has risen nearly 2 full percentage points from the previous year and 8 points in the past decade, has reached its highest point since 1973. At the current pace of improvement, the portion of students earning a diploma could surpass the historical high of 77.1 percent within the next few years.

The research center calculates graduation rates for the nation, states, and every public school district in the country using the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) method and data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data.

With graduation rates approaching all-time-high territory, there is reason both to be encouraged and to keep a focus on the efforts that have driven progress.

But there is a flip side to these gains: Far too many young people are still failing to complete a meaningful high school education. The EPE Research Center projects that 1 million students from this year’s high school class will not graduate with a diploma. That amounts to more than 5,500 students lost each school day, or one student every 31 seconds.

A Class Portrait

Data Download
Graduation in the United States PDF
Graduation Policies for the Class of 2013 PDF

Beneath an overall graduation rate nearing the 75 percent mark, the research center finds several noteworthy patterns that reflect public education’s past and offer a glimpse into its future. In particular, the analysis shows that the accelerating graduation-rate recovery spans demographic groups.

In fact, much of the nation’s improvement since 2000 has been driven by strong gains for historically underserved groups. Graduation rates for Latino students have skyrocketed 16 percentage points during the past decade, reaching 68 percent for the class of 2010. Rates for black students, now at 62 percent, have risen 13 points.

In a partial exception to the trend, Native American students have experienced relatively modest improvements since 2000—an increase of only 3 percentage points, and have been on a downward trend since 2008.

Rates for whites and Asian-Americans have increased by 6 and 5 points, respectively.

Rates Still Rising

The nation’s public school graduation rate continued to climb for the third year in a row, reaching 74.7 percent for the class of 2010. The last time three-quarters of high school students graduated was in 1973. The strongest year-over-year improvements were found for Latino, black, and Asian students.

DC analysis p22 C1s

View an interactive map of graduation-rate trends.

SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2013

One implication of these distinct improvement trajectories is a narrowing of the graduation gaps between whites and their Latino and black peers. The white-Latino diploma gap nearly halved in the past decade, with the black-white gap shrinking by almost 30 percent.

While students from historically disadvantaged groups are earning diplomas at higher rates than a decade ago, large racial and ethnic disparities persist. Asian-Americans and whites remain the top performers, with graduation rates of 81 percent and 80 percent, respectively, for the class of 2010. A 30-point gap separates Asians and Native Americans.

State and Local Perspectives

Similar divides are found across the states and from district to district. At the extremes, a 28-percentage-point gap separates Vermont (graduating 85 percent of students) from the District of Columbia (57 percent). In all, 13 states are now graduating at least 80 percent of their public high school students, while rates fall below 65 percent in six states.

Graduation rates have also risen in a majority of states during the past decade. Forty-six states have posted gains ranging from a fraction of a percentage point to nearly 32 points. Among the states that have lost ground, all but one saw declines of 2 points or less.

District Environment

An analysis by the EPE Research Center reveals stark differences in the characteristics of school systems based on their graduation rates. Compared with high-graduation districts, low-graduation systems are larger, more likely to be located in urban communities, six times as likely to serve a minority-majority student population, and have twice the rates of poverty. Students in low-graduation school districts are nine times as likely to be segregated on the basis of both race and socioeconomic status.

DC districtenvironment p25 C1s

SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2013

Among the nation’s largest school districts, graduation rates, likewise, vary greatly. Fairfax County, Va., ranks first among the 50 largest districts with a graduation rate of 85 percent; Maryland’s Baltimore and Montgomery counties follow closely, at 84 percent each. Graduation rates surpass the national average in 18 of the 50 largest systems.

In an original analysis, the EPE Research Center compared actual district graduation rates with the results that would be expected, based on a detailed statistical profile that takes into account 10 characteristics, including size, location, segregation levels, and per-pupil spending. Three-quarters of these 50 largest systems are exceeding graduation expectations.

Most of the Nation's Largest School Systems Exceeded Expectations

Graduation rates in the nation’s 50 largest districts range from 46 percent to 85 percent for the class of 2010. Three large suburban districts near the nation’s capital—Fairfax County, Va., and Maryland’s Baltimore and Montgomery counties—top the rankings. An original statistical analysis shows that three-quarters of these large districts posted graduation rates that are higher than expected given their size, poverty level, and other defining characteristics.

DC large school exceeds expectationss p25 C1s

SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2013

To add context for high school graduation rates, the EPE Research Center conducts an original survey tracking 18 state policy indicators in three areas: college- and work-readiness definitions, high school-completion credentials, and exit exams. This year’s results indicate that states are holding steady on those measures, with few large shifts related to graduation requirements since 2012.

Thirty-eight states have now defined college readiness, one more than last year. A longer view, however, reveals more dramatic changes. Only 11 states had college-readiness definitions in place in 2007, when the center began monitoring this area. The number of states defining the skills and knowledge needed for work readiness jumped from 21 in 2007 to 38 this year.

The focus on college and work preparation has also prompted states to re-evaluate the rigor of graduation requirements. According to data from the Education Commission of the States, the total number of required credits grew from an average of 20.9 for the class of 2012 to 21.1 for 2013 graduates.

The original research that appears in Diplomas Count 2013 was produced with support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.

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